Counterbalance No. 60: Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Appetite for Destruction’

Guns N' Roses
Appetite for Destruction

Klinger: I can’t tell you how pleased I am that we are finally getting to Guns N’ Roses Appetite for Destruction. After all, according to Acclaimed Music’s rankings, once we get through this week’s Counterbalance, it will be 13 blissful years before I’m once again required to listen to Axl Rose on purpose.

As I’ve listened to Appetite for Destruction these past few weeks, one thought has occurred to me over and over: “Shut up, Axl Rose. Stop screeching in that upper register that sounds like a dentist drill. Stop burbling in that lower range that makes you sound like that dancing frog from the Warner Bros. cartoons. And for the love of God, if you insist on singing your eighth-grader lyrics, please stop punctuating them with pointless inanities like ‘Take that one to heart!’ It doesn’t make you edgy, Axl. It just makes you sound silly. In the name of all that is holy, please, Axl Rose, please shut up.”

So you can see why this week is something of a relief for me.

Mendelsohn: Well, that makes two of us. But despite all of that, I find this album absolutely fascinating. So let’s back up a minute and unpack a few things for discussion. Number one, Axl has a unique vocal approach—it’s high-pitched, it’s whiny, and for some unknown reason, the public loved it. Two, this is the first album we’ve hit where profanity is used as a casual throwaway lyric, a byproduct of the culture as opposed to shock value intended as an artistic statement. And three, if you want to talk about rock and roll—real, quintessential rock and roll, live-fast-and-die-young rock and roll, burn-the-candle-at-both-ends rock and roll—Guns N’ Roses pretty much has it in spades.

The thing I find so fascinating about Guns N’ Roses, and especially Appetite for Destruction, is just how well-loved it is across the spectrum. Everybody loved this album. Men loved it because it rocked hard, it was dirty and heavy, and appealed to the burgeoning mainstream biker culture. Women loved it because Axl was the pinnacle of badass, don’t-bring-him-home-to-mama boyfriends, but the music still had enough pop sensibilities to draw them in as listeners. Kids loved it because they thought their parents would hate it, plus Axl’s lyrics are targeted squarely at the teen-angst set.

To this day, I’m still surprised by how much still like this album. One of my favorite party games includes making derogatory comments about Guns N’ Roses and watching people stumble over each other to defend them, after which they normally break into a couple a cappella bars of “Sweet Child O’ Mine”.

Klinger: It is interesting how beloved Appetite for Destruction is, especially considering I remember this album being more controversial than respected when it first came out. But having vented my spleen about their silly, silly lead singer, I do have up a few thoughts as to why Guns N’ Roses have found their way into the upper reaches of the Great List. First, an unprovable theory.

One of rock’s more enduring canards is the idea that Nirvana’s Nevermind signaled the death of hair metal, but I submit that the first seeds in the demise of that much-maligned genre were planted right here with this album. Guns N’ Roses may have sprung up from the same L.A. scene that launched Poison, et al, but they did avoid the glam trappings that were so clearly destined to have a short shelf life. In a sense, I argue, Guns N’ Roses beat candy metal at its own game, and that set Nirvana up to deliver the final blow.

And their ability to dodge dodgy trends extended into their music. Slash, for example, was one of the few new-generation guitarists whose sound wasn’t beholden to Eddie Van Halen and his widdly-woo finger-tapping. And Izzy Stradlin could have/should have been the heir to the dissolute rock titans of the previous generation. All of this counts for something, and if I didn’t have to endure petulant nonsense like “Out ta Get Me”, I might be right there with your party guests, Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn: I think your unproveable theory might end up holding a lot of water. Guns N’ Roses offered a link between the spandexed hair farmers and the flannel-wearing grungers and without that link, we might hypothesize, Nirvana would not have been as readily accepted as they were. Simply moving the music listening populace from the power ballads and “hard rock” of hair metal to the stripped down dirge of Seattle’s new rock isn’t just going to happen. Guns N’ Roses heavy retooling of blues, rock, and punk acted as a way to soften the ears of the regular listener, preparing them for something a little less flashy.

Appetite for Destruction came out at the absolute right time for a lot of people in my generation. Guns N’ Roses was kind of like the gateway drug into a wider world of music. They were kids when Guns N’ Roses hit and not too long afterward you have Nevermind, joined the same year by Metallica’s “Black Album”. It was a great time for rock and its heavier sub genres. I didn’t come to the party by way of GNR so my relationship with Appetite is tenuous at best, but I can see why this album would be so highly regarded.

Klinger: I was 18 when this album came out and had just discovered the magical curative properties of beer, so I was demographically on target. But at around the same time I had stumbled into the island of misfit toys that was college radio, so I had pretty much opted out of all of this by then. Of course, the singles were all over the place, and there were even times when I could be convinced that “Paradise City” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine” were basically solid pop singles. And if the selections on their 1993 covers album The Spaghetti Incident? serve as an accurate depiction of their roots, Guns N’ Roses share more DNA with the Alternative Nation than either side would care to admit. Duff McKagan did, after all, cut his teeth in Seattle’s punk scene.

Where GNR parts company is in their inordinately enthusiastic embrace of the rock lifestyle, and I think that’s been something of a stumbling block, for me at least. Don’t get me wrong, I’m first in line to champion, say, the Rolling Stones, who for a while there wouldn’t shut up about Sweet Lady H. But the Stones’ debut album wasn’t chockablock with Schedule 1 serenades. To paraphrase Tony Montana, you gotta have the audience first. Then when you have the audience, you get the addiction. Then when you have the addiction, then you write the songs about how hard it is to be a drug addicted rock star. To do otherwise strikes me as unseemly. Unseemly, Mendelsohn!

Mendelsohn: There are a lot of unseemly things about this record and that’s the last thing I want to discuss before we drop Axl and Co. like a bad haircut. Appetite for Destruction marks the first time on the list where we encounter the overt use of profanity. We’ve encountered it before with Public Enemy (used righteously), the Sex Pistols (used to shock), and Nirvana (no big deal, it was the ’90s, our ears had been liberated). Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the word “fuck” or all of its endless and wonderful conjugations—it’s my go-to expletive—but from a strictly cultural standpoint, the use of profanity doesn’t make many appearances in the top 100 and if it does, it’s nothing as gratuitous as what we find here, with Axl acting like a little kid who learned a new word his parents don’t want him shouting in public.

I might just be grasping at straws, but this is the first record we’ve done that the profanity has stuck out. What do you think? Does Appetite signal a shift in lyrical sensibility? Is it merely a sign of the times? Or is Axl stretching for something to say and just dropping F-bombs as a way to garner attention? I mean, subject-wise, there isn’t anything on this record that hasn’t been said a million times before and much more poetically at that. Maybe I just got old all of the sudden and didn’t notice.

Klinger: I know I got old, but that’s making me less likely to be shocked by profanity—I’m more offended by Axl’s ill-advised “Yowza” at the end of “Mr. Brownstone” than I am any salty language. As I was listening to Rose in a song like “It’s So Easy”, I couldn’t help thinking that he was dropping profanity to cover for the fact that the lyrics in the chorus aren’t really all that strong (in all fairness, they are Duff McKagan’s lyrics, though). I’ve noticed that singers may throw in a swear when they’re trying to ratchet up a song that’s not moving forward under its own power. I can’t help thinking that’s at least part of the case here.

But you know what? At the end of the day, albums like this are critic-proof. I can’t begrudge anyone who heard Appetite for Destruction the way it was meant to be heard, but I didn’t listen to this album when I was cruising around with my buddies drinking Coors Light. If I had, I might even love it. I’d be more willing to forgive Axl Rose his excesses, and I’d be more able to appreciate the fun that can come from their brand of mindless hedonism.

See you in 2024, Axl.